Kate and Catherine: reviewing and relating to Catherine Barkley from Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms

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After Cavy read A Farewell to Arms, he insisted that I, and just about everyone else he crossed paths with, read the novel. He talked about it constantly, and the effect that the book had on him afterwards lingered for days. “I’m just sad,” he told me, “just wait till the end … so sad.” He also told me that the “woman” in the book reminded him of me; I was intrigued.

I’ve always found a strange comfort in sad songs, sad movies, and sad books. Maybe because they deviate from our happy ending expectations; why do we always assume a happy ending anyways? The sad stories are more realistic.

Cavy passed along his worn copy of A Farewell to Arms, and I accepted it with inevitable preconceptions and conscious consideration of how I was bound to over-analyze “the woman,” Catherine Barkley’s character, in relation to myself.

Catherine aside for a moment, I loved the book. It definitely made it onto my list of favorites, and it was such a quick read! This is the first of Hemingway that I’ve read, and he writes in a unique style. It’s short, sweet, and incredibly journalistic in the sense that the narrator is keeping a journal, writing down blunt thoughts and feelings. As scattered as that can be, every word felt very intentional.

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Most of the book was grim; it dwelled on details and experiences of the narrator during WWI, but just as information started to become exhausting, a scene with Catherine or a new character or a big event would arise.

I was fascinated with Catherine. She’s obviously more than a simple love interest, I even argue that she’s the most important character in the book.

After Henry meets with Catherine a few times, who he describes as “probably a little crazy,” (ahem, I took note of that, Cav), the rest of the book is written in constant anticipation of seeing her again. While Henry is in the hospital healing, and once he re-enters the war, the mere thought of Catherine and his love for her quite literally keeps him alive and demands him to think twice about his decisions now that Catherine is a part of his life. Falling in love with Catherine required Henry to grow up and think about not only his best interests, but hers as well.

I honestly didn’t care much for Henry, but as I write that now, I’m starting to think maybe I wasn’t supposed to. He slowly but surely developed from a self-interested alcoholic with little purpose, to a less self-interested and more weathered and wise alcoholic. Seeing that most of this development was prompted by his love for Catherine, I was much more interested in her (but remember, I was also a bit biased).

Physically, Catherine is a tall, beautiful, blonde woman who works too hard and too much (hmm, I guess I can draw some analogies here). Mentally, Catherine is a little crazy, but I can connect with her in that way as well. I don’t think her crazy was a bad crazy at all, she simply let’s her thoughts wander and go too far once in a while, something that is understandably easy to do, especially in the midst of a World War. She always brought herself back to reality; dreaming at this time in history served to be dangerous, but it’s something she and Henry did often.

To me, Catherine isn’t a complicated character. She’s a realist, and one who loves being in love. Henry seemed to be her escape and safety net, someone to distract her from the horrors, gruesome injuries, and grim reality of war and of life as she lived it. Her life wasn’t easy. She was a widow. She was a nurse who treated wounded soldiers. She let herself fell in love with a man who was called and re-called to serve in the war. I think it’s pretty incredible that, all that being said, she was still able to love, and let herself be loved.

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This book made me consider perceptions and the harmful ways in which we compare what we know to the “ideal.” Perception of war, perceptions of injuries and of healing, and perceptions of safety and stability, both physically and mentally, are different lived experiences for each and every individual.

As for love, Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry’s love may not have not matched the ideal perception that either our society, nor I assume Hemingway’s society ingrained, but I’m led to believe it was real because it was so imperfect. They helped each other survive, in essence, they helped each other understand war, they helped each other through injury and through healing, and they provided each other a sense of safety and stability. Each gave the other’s life a purpose where there seemed to otherwise be none, and throughout it all, they loved.

In truth, life can be extremely grim, whether we’d like to admit it or not. If anything, this book spoke to me in that it suggested finding and keeping those people who provide us happy distractions, safety and stability, greater understandings, and love, in an attempt to grow as independent individuals, and in an attempt to navigate an often grim existence.

 

I would LOVE to hear everyone and anyones opinions/understandings of the book! Comments are welcome :)

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